Strong mayors cannot come at the expense of those who are already underrepresented
The Strong Mayors, Building Homes Act has now come into effect in Ontario, granting unprecedented new powers to Toronto’s next mayor. With municipal elections on Monday, it is imperative that mayoral candidates be clear on how they intend to use the new powers – as tools to strengthen the city or as instruments to further marginalize marginalized communities?
Currently, the voices and experiences of tenants, the less affluent and the underserved are underrepresented in local decision-making. The fact that the mayor can hire and fire senior executives or push their agenda through the council won’t change that. On the contrary, it will distract from what Toronto really needs: inclusive governance. If the mayor is strong, but large parts of the community are ignored due to poor representation and outdated governance structures, much of the city will remain weak.
When it comes to the municipal policy-making process, racialized and equity-deserving groups face significant barriers to participation. Consultation events largely attract white, older, and more affluent residents. Members of marginalized communities feel disconnected from decision-making power.
Indeed, they may also experience “consultation fatigue” when they are consulted over and over again, but have their needs ignored. Time-consuming consultations are particularly taxing for people in precarious, low-paying jobs who are already overburdened.
Breaking down these barriers requires that power be transferred to communities, and no longer concentrated in the mayor’s office and, to some extent, in city hall. In our new article, A new agenda for local democracy, Published by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, we outline a path to truly strengthening the city: not through more powers for the mayor, but through inclusive governance.
First, Toronto must continue to strengthen offices focused on equity and Aboriginal affairs. The city has adopted a Reconciliation Action Plan and established an Office of Indigenous Affairs, which helps raise awareness among businesses of the relationship with Indigenous peoples that the city must deal with.
Similarly, the Confronting Anti-Black Racism unit achieved important goals, including the creation of a Black staff network, a partnership and accountability circle, and a “Black on Boards” initiative to recruit Blacks for public appointments.
In the context of “strong mayors” and a less representative council, these offices become even more important. They need sufficient resources to work with residents to build trust, forge relationships and find solutions. But with expanded mayoral powers, it is essential that they have the ear of the mayor and report directly to the city manager so that they can influence policies presented to council.
Second, and urgently, public engagement needs to be fundamentally reformed. To prevent certain privileged groups from dictating which priorities are privileged, consultations must reach out to the people rather than the other way around. In our research, we heard of “pop-up” consultations in public markets, libraries, coffee shops, and midnight basketball games. Burlington has successfully provided food truck vouchers to residents to facilitate dialogue on important civic and political issues.
Meaningful inclusion also requires better accessibility, whether through consultations held in languages other than English and easily accessible by public transport, or through evening meetings with meals and childcare. Even providing modest allocations to low-income stakeholders would increase the participation of marginalized communities.
The city should also formalize its relationship with neighborhood associations, as is the case with ZACs, and provide them with staff support, operational funding and institutionalized space. The city also needs to push for greater inclusion and take into account that neighborhood associations are disproportionately located in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods.
The city needs to understand the demographics of neighborhood associations and who is being heard, in order to attract and help new participants join the conversation. Clear accountability and representation standards for neighborhood associations are needed so that there is no uncertainty about the legitimacy of their representative voice.
The strong mayor initiative will centralize even more power in one office. Whether this makes our city less democratic depends on whether the mayor uses his new powers to include the most vulnerable. Citizens and elected officials must, in the interest of strengthening democracy, ensure that strong mayors do not come at the expense of those who are already the least represented. The ideas we have put forward would be an important start.